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THE SITUATION ROOM

Putin: Russia Could Support Strike on Syria; Ariel Castro Found Dead By Apparent Suicide; Obama Warns World; Senator Mitch McConnell Still Undecided on Syria Vote

Aired September 4, 2013 - 17:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Happening now, a SITUATION ROOM special report, Crisis in Syria. A big win for the Obama administration. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approving, just a little while ago, a resolution on the limited military force -- on limit military action against Syria.

But will a House panel do the same?

We have details on the tense committee hearing that just came to an end.

On the international stage, President Obama makes his strongest case yet for action, warning it's the world's credibility on the line here, not his own.

And on the eve of the president's visit, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, he's pushing back, saying he won't be on board until the evidence is, quote, "obvious."

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

A second day of fireworks in the Obama administration's all-out push to sell members of Congress on its case for military action against Syria.

Secretary of State, John Kerry, Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs chairman, General Martin Dempsey, all in the hot seat once again today, this time fielding very tough questions from members of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the House of representatives. They are demanding to know more.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. TED YOHO (R), FLORIDA: A nation that did not attack us, an act of war.

And if we start war, we invite war, do we not?

And I view this as unconstitutional to attack a country that did not attack us. I and the people I represent said not just no, but something like heck no, don't get involved in this.

REP. GREGORY MEEKS (D), NY: Mr. Secretary, you said the world is watching what we are doing, but I've yet to hear some concrete things of what the world is doing. I'm fearful that they will isolate the United States.

JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: The president thinks he -- that as a matter of conscience and as a matter of policy, the best route to proceed is through the military action now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But in April it was very clear, chemical weapons are chemical weapons.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, meantime, has just delivered an important win for the White House, approving a resolution authorizing a U.S. military response, only about 24 hours since holding the very same hearing with the same witnesses.

Our chief Congressional correspondent, Dana Bash, has been watching all of this unfold.

She's joining us now from Capitol Hill -- a dramatic day, a step in the right direction from the administration's perspective, but a long way to go.

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, a very long way to go. It certainly was the first big hurdle for the administration to get over. But it was perhaps tighter than they would have hoped it to be, 10-7, that was what this authorization measure was approved by, by this key committee, with one senator, ironically, the senator who is in the Senate because John Kerry left to become secretary of State, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, voted "present." He said he needs more information, that's the reason why he did that.

But only three Republicans, Wolf, voted yes. John McCain is one of them. And he did so after getting some language that he was seeking about the -- just to make it policy of the United States that the U.S. wants to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria. He -- that was very important to him. It's something the president told him in the Oval Office, he wanted to be in here.

And this his colleague from Arizona, and then Bob Corker, the top Republican in the committee. That's it.

So that might give you a sense of how tough it's going to be and maybe not so much in the Senate, but also when you're talking about what's going to happen later on in the House, which, of course, is run by Republicans.

What happens next in the Senate, though?

It goes to the full Senate, likely with a vote next week. And we expect there to be some pretty intense debate there, of course.

BLITZER: Yes, 10-7,

A lot closer than a lot of folks thought it would be, especially in that committee, which usually goes along with the administration.

BASH: Exactly.

BLITZER: They're still going to need 60 votes if there's a filibuster in the Senate, 60 out of the 100 members of the U.S. Senate.

But what does this vote mean for the House?

It's going to be a lot closer, by all accounts, in the House of Representatives.

BASH: That's right. And, you know, you really saw it on display. You played some of the comments from lawmakers today, and, of course, the push-back from John Kerry. But they're really all over the map. It is going to be very difficult for the administration to answer everybody's concerns because you have some who are simply really upset that the administration waited this long to deal militarily. Then you have many, especially those in his own party, those are really the people who we're watching closely, who say this is the wrong thing to do no matter what. They're the more sort of anti-interventionist caucus. And there are lots of those in the Republican Party, too.

This could be very, very interesting to see how it shakes out. We saw a second so-called "Dear Colleague" letter from the Democratic leader today, again, not pressuring anybody, not saying, you know, I need you to vote this way or else, but the clear intention there from her, from Nancy Pelosi and others who are supporting the president, is to really try hard to get people on board, by showing them intelligence, by having these public hearings.

But it is anybody's guess what happens in the House. They're grappling with their own language, how to write this language, to change it, just like the Senate did, as well.

BLITZER: They'll need 218 votes out of 435 members of the House. We'll see what happens there.

Dana, thank you.

Far from Washington, President Obama is on the world stage right now, making his strongest case yet for a military response, holding the international community accountable.

CNN's senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is traveling with the president.

And he's joining us from Stockholm, Sweden with this part of the story.

The president was very forceful today -- Jim.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. With many U.S. allies opposed to the president taking unilateral action against Syria, Mr. Obama pressed his first his case on the first day of his foreign trip to both Sweden and Russia, on the same day the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah, begins, the president invoked the Holocaust to urge the world to join him.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): Leaving one skeptical continent for another, President Obama landed in Sweden to make his most forceful plea to date for the world to punish the Syrian government for its alleged use of chemical weapons.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My credibility is not on the line, the international community's credibility is on the line. The question is, after we've gone through all this, are we going to try to find a reason not to act?

ACOSTA: In a news conference with the Sweden's prime minister, the president defended his original red line warning from a year ago, making the case that he's only trying to enforce international agreements barring chemical weapon use.

OBAMA: First of all, I didn't set a red line, the world set a red line.

ACOSTA: But looking back, the president clearly took ownership of the red line reference.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM AUG 20, 2012)

OBAMA: A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: The sales pitch was not enough to convince Swedish prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, who wants the issue settled at the United Nations.

FREDRIK REINFELDT, SWEDISH PRIME MINISTER: You are now in Sweden, a small country with a deep belief in the United Nations.

ACOSTA: But Mr. Obama didn't stop there. Hours before the arrival of the Jewish New Year, the president honored Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.

OBAMA: Wallenberg reminds us of our power when we choose not simply to bear witness, but also to act.

ACOSTA: And warned of the consequences of ignoring war crimes.

OBAMA: The people of Europe are certainly familiar with what happens when the international community finds excuses not to act.

ACOSTA: But Russian president, Vladimir Putin, who's hosting this week's G-20 Summit and is blocking action at the U.N. continued to insist in an interview that Syrian rebels could be the real poison gas attackers.

Still, Obama administration officials actually saw hope for progress in Putin's comments.

OBAMA: I have not written off the idea that the United States and Russia are going to continue to have common interests, even as we have some very profound differences on some other issues.

ACOSTA: But Mr. Obama is learning that Putin is not his only problem, with Europeans still fuming over U.S. surveillance programs.

OBAMA: I can give assurances to the publics in Europe and around the world that we're not going around snooping at people's e-mails or listening to their phone calls.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

ACOSTA: White House officials say President Obama and Putin will likely meet with each other briefly at the G-20 Summit. But there are plenty of tensions still between these two leaders. In a veiled jab at Russia's treatment of gays and lesbians, the president plans to meet with gay and lesbian activists in St. Petersburg on Friday -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Acosta traveling with the president.

Thank you very much.

Let's get some analysis now from Fareed Zakaria.

He's the host of CNN's "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS."

You've got a strong column in the new issue of "Time" magazine -- Fareed.

I read it.

Let me put a line or two up on the screen. "We might be inching into a complex civil war, all the while denying that we are doing so. The administration might want to keep the mission limited and proportional, as Obama initially promised, but it will be a challenge."

Is the president -- is the Obama administration, are they fooling themselves right now by saying this will be limited, no boots on the ground, it will be very targeted and it will be relatively quick?

FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST, "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS": I think so, Wolf. Here's the problem. You just -- you know, in that one excellent report, you pointed out, President Obama is now comparing this to the Holocaust.

John Kerry has compared it to Munich, the appeasement that produced World II, that was on the road to World War II.

If it's all these things, then is the response from the United States merely going to be a stiff warning, which is what a shot across the bow is?

That was the language that was being used just two days ago.

Already, John McCain says he has received assurances that it's going to be a lot more than that, that the strikes are going to be more intense, that we're going to arm the rebels.

Now, when you get into a dynamic situation like the Syrian civil war, what if things don't go your way?

What if Assad starts recovering?

We now have a dog in the fight. It would be very difficult to see, with so much U.S. credibility on the line, how we could just stop and say, well, that's it, we did three days of strikes and we're going back.

So I feel as though the rhetoric we have had to use to persuade Congress, persuade the world, has been so vast, that it's very difficult to stay to a very limited and precise mission, which is what the president had originally wanted to do.

BLITZER: In your column, you also write about what you say is "the president's admiration for the first President Bush and the way he handled the cold war."

What are the lessons, do you think, this president should learn from President George H.W. Bush?

ZAKARIA: You know, George H.W. Bush, whom President Obama has repeatedly cited as his role model for conduct of president, was very careful not to make promises or threats that you can't carry through and that you can't see through to the end, not just the first stage.

So there was a moment where, you remember this very well, Wolf, when the Berlin Wall was coming down and people said Bush should get up and encourage it and celebrate it and, you know, say that the Russians are evil. And Bush was very aware that that could unleash consequences that he didn't -- he couldn't control. There were Russian troops still in Germany and Poland, in Hungary.

So he said nothing. He didn't want to use words -- fancy words that would make him feel good and, you know, seem like the right thing to say, unless he had a specific plan of action to see it through, not on the first day, but the second, third and fourth day.

And I feel with Syria, we've been missing some of that. There have been -- there's been some tough talk, but not a clear plan of action to back that tough talk up.

BLITZER: Our friend Tom Friedman, writing in "New York Times" today, he writes this. He says: "We are out front alone. We may not want to be, but here we are. So we must lead. I think the best response to the use of poison gas by President Bashar al-Assad is not a cruise missile attack on Assad's forces, but an increase in the training and arming of the Free Syrian Army, including the anti-attack and anti- aircraft weapons it's long sought.

Do you agree with Tom?

ZAKARIA: No, I don't. And I'll tell you why. This is simply a practical matter. The administration here deserves some credit. They have been trying to find these moderate Syrian rebels. The Turks have spent two years trying to find them and to build up a moderate opposition, democratic-minded, create a government in exile.

It's proving to be very difficult. It's not that everybody who is opposing Assad is some kind of a, you know, Islamic Jihadist. It's that this is a very messy, complex civil war. By some accounts, there are 1,000 separate militias fighting in Syria. They don't seem to be coordinated.

And so for us to, almost by remote control, 6,000 miles away, believe we can figure out who the moderate opposition forces are, vet them and arm them, is proving very difficult.

So, you know, yes, it's a good goal. It is the administration's goal. It's been the Turks' goal. It hasn't been very easy to do.

BLITZER: Is there any chance the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, will come around and -- maybe not necessarily support the U.S. at the United Nations Security Council, but at least abstain?

Is there any chance that could happen?

ZAKARIA: I doubt it. And I think it has to do with a complicated set of issues.

The Russians believe they were fooled over Libya. You remember in Libya, the United States asked for what appeared to be a limited mandate from the U.N. The Russians went along with it. And then it ended up being regime change. I think the Russians might have been fooling themselves, but they think we tricked them.

The Russians are also very loathe to have the United States be the judge, jury and hangman in all these international cases, where we decide who broke international law, we go in, we do everything. You know, this is an element of Russian nationalism.

The final point, though, Wolf, which is worth keeping in mind, the Russians do worry about a rising tide of Islamic radicalism. They see -- and they may be wrong here, but they see Assad as holding the line against a whole bunch of Sunni Jihadist fanatics who would take over Syria and then would spread that Islamic Jihad to Dagestan, to Chechnya, to places very close to Russia's own heartland.

BLITZER: Fareed Zakaria, thanks, as usual, for joining us.

When we come back, we're going to have a lot more, by the way, on the U.S.-Russian connection. This on the eve 69 president's visit to Russia. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, claims he won't buy the case for military action in Syria unless the evidence is obvious. He says it's far from obvious right now. Plus, we'll get reaction from what we just saw on Capitol Hill from the president's deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken. He'll join us here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And you're watching a THE SITUATION ROOM special report, Crisis in Syria.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: The White House has just released the statement thanking the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for approving the use of U.S. military force in Syria. "We commend the Senate for moving swiftly and for working across party lines on behalf of our national security."

The statement by the press secretary says, "We believe America is stronger when the president and Congress work together." That just came in to the SITUATION ROOM. But just how clear is the evidence that Syria did, in fact, use chemical weapons on its own people? The U.S., Britain, France, Germany, they all say the evidence is crystal clear, but Syria's staunch ally, Russia, is not buying it at all.

Indeed, in an interview today, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, said his country could support a strike but only if the evidence is, quote, "obvious." CNNs Phil Black is joining us from Moscow right know. Is there a little bit of daylight from the U.S. perspective as far as Putin is concerned, Phil?

PHIL BLACK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the suggestion of Russian support for military intervention in Syria is unprecedented in this process, but it's a little hollow. The criteria set by President Putin means it's very unlikely to happen.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLACK (voice-over): After more than two years of maintaining consistent unyielding policy, blocking any military intervention from Syria, Russia's president seemed to open the door just a little. He said he doesn't exclude backing military action to punish the Syrian government for using chemical weapons.

PRES. VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIA (through translator): If we have objective, precise data of who is responsible for these crimes, then we will react.

BLACK: But Putin set strict conditions. The process must involve the United Nations Security Council, and there would have to be undeniable proof. It ought to be convincing. "It shouldn't be based on some rumors and information obtained by special services through some kind of eavesdropping."

And Putin made it clear he doesn't think the evidence he's demanding even exists, because he doesn't believe the Syrian government was responsible. "From our viewpoint, it seems absolutely absurd the armed forces would start using forbidden chemical weapons while realizing quite well that it could serve as a pretext for applying sanctions against them, including the use of force." President Putin still believes it's more likely it was Syria's opposition fighters.

PUTIN: If it is concluded that the fighters used weapons of mass destruction, what will the U.S. do with the fighters? What would these sponsors do with the fighters? Are they going to stop delivering weapons? Are they going to launch military action against them?

BLACK: That's a long way from the American president's position. Barack Obama was in Sweden, because he earlier called off a bilateral summit with Putin. That meeting was canceled, because Syria is just one of many issues these leaders don't agree on.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We've got to hit a wall in terms of additional progress.

BLACK: The American and Russian president will come face-to-face Thursday at the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg.

OBAMA: Do I hold out hope that Mr. Putin may change his position on some of these issues? I'm always hopeful, and I will continue to engage him, because I think that international action would be much more effective. And ultimately, we can end deaths much more rapidly if Russia takes a different approach to these problems.

BLACK: President Putin says he believes they can still work together, even though they sometimes irritate each other.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLACK (on-camera): Wolf, the Russian government gave a little more insight today into why it believes Syrian rebels are responsible for using chemical weapons. They say Russian experts investigated an earlier alleged chemical weapons incident in the city of Aleppo on March 19th, they say killed 26, injured 86. Their investigators found that the projectile was homemade and similar to a type produced by rebels in the north of the country.

They say samples from the ground show that the chemical agent, sarin, had also been produced in small quantities. And the purpose for releasing this information is clearly to discredit or at least raise doubts about President Obama's high confidence the Syrian government was responsible for the more recent and much more deadly attack in Damascus -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I'm anxious to see how that informal meeting tomorrow between these two presidents, Presidents Obama and Putin actually unfolds. We'll, of course, have coverage of all of this at the St. Petersburg G20 Summit. Thanks very much for joining us. Phil Black in Moscow.

Our SITUATION ROOM special report continues, crisis in Syria. Up next, the Obama administration pushing for what it calls a limited military response against Syria, but why not go further? I'll ask the president's deputy national security adviser, Tony Blinken.

We'll also catch up on some of today's other headlines, including the shocking death of the man who held three American women captive for a decade, Ariel Castro.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's get to some of the other top stories in the SITUATION ROOM right now. Ariel Castro, the man sentenced to life in prison for kidnapping and raping three women in Ohio, he has been found dead in his cell. The coroner's office says he committed suicide by hanging.

CNN has learned the three women who Castro kept locked up for about a decade are certainly aware of his death, but will not be releasing a statement, at least for now. Castro's attorney says his client should have been under stricter protection if he were believed to be suicidal.

We're learning about another run-in with the police for George Zimmerman. A police officer in Florida confirms to CNN Zimmerman was cited for speeding yesterday going 60 miles an hour in a 45-mile an hour zone. He'll need to pay a fine. He'll get some points on his license. Zimmerman was found not guilty in the death of the teenager, Trayvon Martin, back in July.

And the world's fastest man is calling it quits in three years. The Jamaican sprinter, Usain Bolt, says he will retire after the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Bolt already has 14 god medals, but he says that to be a, quote, "be a legend," he needs to go out on top, which he expects will be after the next summer Olympic games.

And coming up next, President Obama says Syria crossed a red line, then says he didn't actually set that line, the world set that red line. I'll ask the president's deputy national security adviser why President Obama passed the buck on his previous statement.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: President Obama is taking his case for military action against Syria to the world stage right now, making it clear this isn't his red line that Syria crossed, but the world's red line. That's what he said today, that consequently international community's credibility right now he says is at stake, not his own credibility.

I spoke about that and a lot more earlier with the president's deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Tony, thanks very much for coming in.

There has been some confusion about the president's use of the words "red line" based on what he said at the news conference today. Let me play the clip of what he said a year or so ago and what he said today.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons movable around. That would change my cal inclusion, my equation. First of all, I didn't set a red line, the world set a red line.

BLITZER: All right. So, you understand the confusion. Explain what the president meant by saying he didn't set a red line, the world set a red line.

ANTONY BLINKEN, DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Wolf, the president is exactly right. The world said a red line a long time ago, nearly 100 year ago after World War I, when poison gas was used to terrible effect. The world got together and passed something called the Geneva protocol that ban the use of chemical weapons in war. And then more recently, the United States Congress and countries around the world got behind something called the chemical weapons convention in 1997. Countries representing 98 percent of the world's population ascribed to that. And that too says you could use chemical weapons.

And ever more recently than that, the Congress passed overwhelmingly the Syria accountability act in 2003, and that was motivated in part by concern that Syria was getting chemical weapons. Now they have used this. So, the red line, the president was talking about, that is exactly right. It's a red line that the international community set, it's a red line that Congress set, and also a red line that the president set.

BLITZER: Is regime change still part of the president's strategy?

BLINKEN: So here's what people need to understand. We believe that Assad has lost his legitimacy. And in perpetrating the terrible violence he's perpetrated on his people, he needs to go. And for the last time now, we have had a strategy in place to facilitate a transition to move Assad out through a political transition. We believe that's the only sustainable way to do it. If there is a civil war, the only way to end it is through a negotiated settlement.

So to do that, we have been putting pressure on the regime, we have been isolating it, we have been building up the opposition, and we have been pursuing a diplomatic track with principles of what a transition would look like and we are committed to that. And in that context, Assad needs to go and there needs to be a transition.

Separate from that, but within the context of what's going on in Syria, we have had this terrible use of chemically weapons, on the August 21st, killing well over 1,000 people, including hundreds of children. This is something that goes beyond even Syria and beyond the region. It goes to the international norm against the use of these weapons. We have to enforce it. Otherwise, Assad will conclude he can use it again. Otherwise countries in the region and beyond that have weapons or trying to get them would conclude they can use them with impunity.

BLITZER: A year and a half or so ago, Susan Rice, she was still the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. She was on our program which was seen live around the world, including in Damascus. And I said to her, look into the camera, talk to Bashar al-Assad. Here's what she said then.

SUSAN RICE, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UNITED NATIONS: Your days are numbers, and it is time and past time for you to transfer power responsibly and peacefully. The longer you hang on, the more damage you do yourself, your family, your interests, and indeed your country.

BLITZER: What's taking so long?

BLINKEN: Well, Susan was exactly right. And unfortunately, Assad has proven that proposition. He has done terrible damage in the interim. And we know this is a difficult and frustrating process to get a negotiated political settlement, but we believe it's the best way to proceed in order to have him leave power. Because all of the other alternatives, risk, having something follow Assad that's as bad, if not worse. And in particular, we are very concerned that the state of Syria hold together after Assad is gone, and that its institutions remain intact. We know what happens when that doesn't happen. We saw it in Iraq. And so, the best way to secure that is through a negotiated settlement. And part of that involves convincing Assad that he needs to go to the table and negotiate his departure. That's what we're working on, that why we are pressuring him, that's why we are building up the opposition.

BLITZER: Has the U.S. started delivering lethal weapons to the rebels?

BLINKEN: I can' get into the assistance that we are providing. What I can say is this, Wolf. We have significantly increased the assistance that we are providing to the opposition, to including both the civilian opposition and the so-called Syrian military council which is the military arm of the opposition. We are supporting them, we are trying to make them more effective, along with the civilian component, but I can't detail what we are doing or not doing.

BLITZER: Why can't you tell us? Because a few months ago, the president said he was going to start supplying weapons to the rebels. John McCain has made a huge issue out of this saying where are those weapons? And so, he thinks that maybe they have started flowing to the rebels and it is simple question. Why can't you tell us whether or not the U.S. has started providing weapons to the rebels?

BLINKEN: Wolf, what the president said a few months ago, and recall this was a few months ago, our intelligence community came together and concluded, after looking at this for some period of time, that they had high confident that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons on a small scale, but repeatedly over the previous year. And at that point, the president had said that would change my calculus, and indeed it did. And what he said then was that we were going to significantly increase our assistance to the Syrian opposition, including direct assistance to the military council. What we're not doing is detailing in public what that assistance amounts to. So, all I can tell you today is that following on the president's instructions, we've increased our assistance and we're continuing to do that.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: In our next hour, would el have the rest of my interview with Tony Blinken, the president's deputy national security adviser and I will ask him what happens, what if the Congress where to vote no? Would the president go ahead and strike Syria anyway? Stand by. That's coming up in our Special Report at the top of the hour.

Plus, top leaders from both parties are standing by the president in Syria with one notable exception. We are going to tell you who that is, why he is laying low. John King is standing by at the magic wall.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: President Obama is enjoying unusual bipartisan support among top leaders of the Senate on his push to take military action against Syria, with this one notable exception, the Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, who has yet to publicly announce where he stands on this issue.

CNN's chief national correspondent John King has a closer look at why that might be going on right now.

What are you seeing, John? What are you learning?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it does look a bit unusual with the speaker, the House Democratic leader and the Senate majority leader, all out earlier support the president. Mitch McConnell is alone among the four top congressional leaders.

Now he says, he is undecided simply because he has more questions for the president. He says the administration in his view, has yet to make the case and has a viable military strategy. But many look at politics back home as another reason from McConnell's caution. He is up for reelection next year. He faces a tea party challenge. From Matt Bevin, he is a businessman there. And not only is the tea party challenger Bevin, forcefully against U.S. involved in Syria, so is too is Mitch McConnell not-so-secret weapon back home.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KING (voice-over): The Kentucky state fair is about much more than horses. There's deep-fried kool-aid, and the famous doughnut burger, a heart-stopping marriage of Krispy Kremes and quarter pounder.

This year a new attraction you have to see up close to believe. Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, all smiles determine to prove the Republican establishment and the tea party go together like -- well, like the ham and eggs at this farm bureau breakfast. Its local flavor with enormous national implications.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MINORITY LEADER: The one reason is this is the one time --

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: I was hungry.

MCCONNELL: -- in our state where every elected official and aspiring politician of both parties is here. It's a great celebration of agriculture. I would be surprised at anybody who political didn't show up. KING: McConnell is nothing if not clever. His immediate worry tea party primary challenger Matt Bevin, is not here, skipping the affair's big political event. The Bevin challenge is based on trademark tea part attack line.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: McConnell has higher taxes, bailout, congressional pay raises and liberal judges.

MATT BEVIN, TE PARTY PRIMARY SENATE CANDIDATE: I'm Matt Bevin.

KING: His chances depend on big outside help and conservative organizations known for taking on the GOP establishment are beginning to test McConnell's vulnerable.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Career Washington politician Mitch McConnell claims to be a conservative.

KING: Early polling shows McConnell well-ahead but mindful of recent history, he is running as if scared.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Bevin's company failed to pay taxes then got a taxpayer bailout. Bailout Bevin, not a Kentucky conservative.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Newspapers say Bevin was dishonest about his resume claiming he graduated from prestigious M.I.T., not true again.

KING: At his events, a hard line against the president.

MCCONNELL: Solution Obamacare is to pull it out, root and branch.

KING: McConnell, though, opposes a Tea Party-backed plan to risk a government shutdown if that's what it takes to deny funding for Obamacare. He hopes his new sidekick helps limit any Tea Party backlash.

BEVIN: I think it's a dumb idea to shut down the government.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hi, how are you doing?

KING: Democrat Alison Grimes is well aware Kentucky hasn't sent a Democrat to the Senate in 20 years now.

ALISON GRIMES (D), U.S. SENATE CANDIDATE: We have had trouble in our state with identifying with the national Democratic Party, and I will tell you that I am running as a Kentuckian. You know, I have my disagreements with the president.

KING: Grimes campaigns, at least for now, as though McConnell will survive the primary.

GRIMES: It's about ending the disease of dysfunction that we have seen in Washington, D.C., and after nearly 30 years Senator McConnell is at the center of it. He is to blame for the failed leadership.

(END VIDEOTAPE) KING: And, Wolf, the McConnell campaign is confident, if he survives the primary then he can beat Grimes. Look at the map, President Obama won only four counties in Kentucky He remains pretty unpopular. McConnell's campaign is confident about that. But I know that he's running scared. He seems to be running scared even against -- even though the polling shows in favor against his Tea Party challenger Mr. Bevin, in part because of the experience in 2010, when Mitch McConnell backed Tray Grayson, and now the man on his side, his secret weapons, Rand Paul, of course, upset him in the primary. That was one of the 2010 painful Tea Party lessons for Mitch McConnell. There were several others as well.

Wolf, you remember Robert Bennett, the senator from Utah, one of Mitch McConnell's best friends in the Senate, beaten by a Tea Party candidate. Tea Party nominees lost in Colorado, they lost in Nevada. Mitch McConnell thinks he might be majority leader now if not for the Tea Party so he remembers history well, and he's running as if he's a bit worried.

BLITZER: Yes -- the president's authorization to use military force could be very, very significant in his bid for reelection.

Thanks very much, John King, reporting.

Up next, the former president Bill Clinton, he comes to Obamacare's rescue. That's coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Bill Clinton to Obamacare's rescue?

CNN's Athena Jones has details.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Clinton in Arkansas to defend perhaps the most controversial piece of President Obama's legacy -- the Affordable Care Act.

BILL CLINTON, CLINTON FOUNDATION: This law has already done a lot of good. It's about to make 95 percent of us insured, with access to affordable care.

JONES: Critics say the law will kill jobs and rob people of the freedom to make their own health care decisions. The former president, looking professorial in glasses and speaking in a wonky detail, spelled out some of the provisions already in effect and explained how the laws' health care exchanges opening next month will work.

CLINTON: An uninsured person can log on to a national site, healthcare.gov, or a state site, and shop for the most affordable appropriate policy.

JONES: Wednesday's speech kicks off a big public education push by the White House to sell the often unpopular and misunderstood 3-year- old law. Clinton acting as Obama's explainer-in-chief, said the law was not perfect, but he urged its supporters and critics to work together to implement it.

CLINTON: Whether we like it or don't, we'd all be better off working together to make it work as well as possible to identify the problems and fix it. Instead of keep replaying the same old battles.

JONES: But that's a tall order. Those old battles are new again. With Republicans on Capitol Hill and in state Houses across the country, keeping up their opposition to the law.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: It's not working and it's hurting Americans.

GOV. NIKKI HALEY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: When it came to Obamacare, we didn't just say no, we said never. We did not allow state exchanges in the state of South Carolina.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What's the impact of Obamacare?

JONES: And the ad war is ramping up on both sides.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The truth is, Americans are already seeing the benefits.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thanks to Obamacare, we can now afford the care that Zoe needs.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Put the government in the middle of things, I'm worried that we won't be able to keep the same doctors.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can I really trust the folks in Washington with my family's health care?

JONES: The fight over the law isn't over. Just next week a national Tea Party group plans a rally opposing Obamacare outside the U.S. Capitol.

Athena Jones, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Up next, a mystery that must be solved. What happened to the flag at ground zero?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tom's photo comes in, and we huddled around the computer. And he brings up this photo.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And it popped out because of the flag. Everything had this grayish blue tint to it. And there you saw the red, white and blue. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I sat there, and I said that's an incredible picture. And Danielle was standing behind me and she said, that's not a picture, it's an icon.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think there's one meaning of a flag, but many interpretations. And each of us can have a personal connection with that symbol.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: That photo certainly among the most powerful images to emerge from 9/11 but the flag is missing and it's a mystery at the heart of a brand new CNN film, premiering tonight at 9:00 p.m. Eastern.

I spoke about that with David Friend, author of "The Flag."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: What made you specifically focus in on this one mystery of this flag?

Well, we focused on the picture that gave us hope. It was by Tom Franklin of the Bergen Record. In a day of devastation, destruction and death, here was a picture that looked forward instead of at what was going on that day. It said, it was a picture of resolve.

DAVID FRIEND, AUTHOR OF "THE FLAG": It became the most reproduced picture of the new millennium. And so we wanted to tell the back story. And as this chapter in the book says, the flag says, and as the documentary by Mike Tucker and Petra Epperlein, produces -- directed, it talks about what caused these men to do this, and then what causes us to embrace the symbol.

BLITZER: Are we ever going to really find out where this flag is or went? Because as far as I can tell, this mystery remains unsolved.

FRIEND: It disappeared that very first night, so that the flag that actually went up to Yankee Stadium, that was actually signed by Governor Pataki, by Rudy Giuliani, the flag itself was then -- the flag was a facsimile flag. It wasn't the real flag. The real flag disappeared. And we realized that it disappeared that very first night by using forensic.

We've looked at pictures and seen pictures that were taken at 9:00 that night. The picture itself by Tom Franklin was taken at 5:00 that night on 9/11. By 9:00 it was wrapped.

BLITZER: Amazing --

(CROSSTALK)

FRIEND: It was wrapped -- yes, absolutely. It was wrapped around that pole. They're pictures that we show on the show tonight, and then it was disappeared by 10:30. There were pictures taken by other photographers who found. It was gone. Now where did it go? And we'd gotten some leads already on CNN.com, where people would come in and they've said, hey, you know, we saw some people who set up lights that night, who dispatched down from main, and it might be in our boss's office.

So somebody must have taken it down to protect it from the elements that night or they saw it was wrapped around. And they might not even know that they have the real flag or someone -- because it wasn't famous yet. In the first evening, that flag had not been published. It wasn't published in the Bergen Record until late, late that night on the Web site and then early in the morning.

Didn't get known until the 12th of September. So someone protected it for some reason and we're already getting some leads. So hopefully we'll find it.

BLITZER: Hopefully we will. David Friend, thanks so much for doing this.

The documentary airs tonight, only on CNN, 9:00 p.m. Eastern. We will all be watching.

Thanks very much.

FRIEND: Thanks, Wolf. Really appreciate it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Don't forget. 9:00 p.m. Eastern later tonight. "THE FLAG," only here on CNN.

Happening now, a SITUATION ROOM special report. "Crisis in Syria." President Obama is a step closer to getting a green light he needs to strike in Syria after a first vote in Congress that has new appeal for support. But the hurdles ahead for team Obama are clear. Stand by to hear the backlash of the House of Representatives and the president's evolving battle plan.

Plus the risk of helping Syrian rebels aligned with al Qaeda. We're zeroing in on the struggle to identify the so-called good guys.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer.